How often do you find yourself starting a new recipe for dinner only to find you are missing one ingredient and two minutes later you are ordering takeout? I’ve been there. I stood in my fully stocked pantry with a blank stare thinking “I don’t know what to make” because I didn’t have an exact recipe in hand. Cooking without a recipe is one of the best strategies I’ve learned (and continue to coach clients on) to improve my health, meal variety, and self-care.
What is a Balanced Meal?
Before we can talk about cooking balanced meals without a recipe, we have to know what a balanced meal is. The term balanced is broad in and of itself because it can mean something different to everyone. Especially when it comes to balanced nutrition. But to put it simply, a balanced meal incorporates a satisfying portion of each macronutrient – protein, carbohydrate, and fat – and helps to fulfill your daily micronutrient and fiber requirements.
Generally speaking, the average healthy adult needs about 10-35 percent of daily calories from protein, 45-65 percent of calories from carbohydrates, and 20-35 percent from fat. Most plant foods have a combination of these macronutrients making it hard to put them in just one category. For example, beans are a great source of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, but they are also rich in starch, a form of carbohydrate.
In addition to the three macronutrients, I like to add “color” as a subcategory. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and even whole grains come in a variety of colors that each have their own micronutrient profile. Focusing on the different colors of a meal can help ensure you are also getting a variety of vitamins and minerals. A really simple balanced plant-based meal can look like a stir-fry of brown rice (carbohydrate), edamame (protein), mixed stir-fry vegetables (color/vegetables), and a sesame oil and tamari-based sauce (fat and flavor).
When we aim to build most of our meals using these five meal components (protein, carbohydrates, fruits & non-starchy vegetables, fat, and flavor), we set ourselves up for optimal satisfaction (both in fullness & flavor). This visual guide of plant-based meal components still allows for flexibility in incorporating foods we truly enjoy and find to be satisfying, while also adjusting portions of foods to meet our body’s unique needs. Keep in mind that one balanced plate doesn’t make your whole diet “balanced”. As a Registered Dietitian, I’m looking at my clients’ meal routines over the course of a week or two to assess overall balance.
A Recipe Doesn’t Tell the Full Story
Recipes provide specific measurements for each ingredient in order to make a set number of servings. This makes it easy on the chef to shop and prepare ingredients and have an idea of how much food the recipe will make. What a recipe doesn’t tell you is how hungry you are or what you are craving. Use recipes as a guide to creating meals, but check in with yourself when it comes to the final creation of flavors, ingredients, and portions.
Our energy and nutrient requirements can change on a daily basis depending on hunger cues, hormones, stress, activity level, sleep patterns, and other health factors. So, aim to eat a variety of foods throughout the week and do your best to incorporate the three macronutrients into each meal.
“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” - Julia Child
Tips for Cooking Without a Recipe
- Keep a well-stocked kitchen. Cooking without a recipe starts with having everything you need in the kitchen, both food and cooking tools. Check out this post about stocking a plant-based pantry and grab my Plant-Based Grocery Shopping List as a bonus when you take this free 3-day training series on The 3 P’s to Eating Plant-Based Without Dieting. At a bare minimum, have these basic tools in your kitchen: quality chef’s knife, cutting boards, can opener, measuring cups and spoons, cooking utensils (spoons, spatulas, tongs, whisk), colander, mixing bowls, pots and pans, baking sheets, blender or food processor, and food storage containers.
- Start with a dish you already know. Surely you’ve already browsed Pinterest, Instagram, and Google for both new and familiar recipes. Take the recipes you’ve already made and make them again. But this time, focus on the process. What tools and skills does the recipe use (oven versus stove, peeling versus grating)? Which cooking methods create the best flavor and texture (steaming, sautéing, roasting, etc.)? How does the ratio of ingredients help deliver a palatable meal? This is the time to learn with a little guidance.
- Practice basic cooking skills weekly. Cooking at home requires a solid foundation of basic cooking skills. This might include cooking methods such as baking, roasting, sautéing, braising, steaming, broiling, and grilling. You may find it helpful to have experience with different kitchen appliances such as a slow cooker, blender, immersion blender, pressure cooker, and air fryer. You’ll want to be efficient in knife skills, how to make basic sauces, how to use herbs and seasonings, and best uses for different cooking methods of varying foods. If this sounds overwhelming, I coach my clients on these foundational cooking skills in my nutrition and culinary coaching service.
- Explore new foods and flavors. Cooking without recipes requires being adventurous! Be open-minded and willing to try new things whether that’s a new food, a new cuisine, new flavor combinations, or a new cooking method. Remember being a kid and trying new foods for the first time? You probably didn’t like it right away. But, you eventually tried it again in a different way. This same concept applies to cooking. Maybe you don’t like steamed vegetables, but grilled and roasted vegetables are your jam. Don’t be afraid to try something out of the box! That’s how we learn.
- Reject the diet mentality. This is the first principle of Intuitive Eating, a concept created by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Diet culture makes its presence very heavy in the kitchen. It tells us to measure and track every ingredient, cut the fatty ingredients in half because they’re higher calorie, and swap carbohydrates like rice for low-carb alternatives like cauliflower. Cooking a dish only to make it easier to track in your calorie counting app can not only make cooking more stressful and time consuming, but it also fights your natural hunger cues. Our body is designed to crave different foods and different portions each day. Allow yourself to feel that when you’re cooking and adjust portions and ingredients accordingly. Not only does eliminating fatty ingredients like oil or vegan butter make food less flavorful, but it can alter the cooking process making a dish unpalatable. Same thing goes for making low-carbohydrate swaps. Do you really want to eat the cauliflower rice, or would you rather just have the rice? Trust what your gut is craving and cook it!
Practice Makes Progress in the Kitchen
Once you stock your kitchen and pantry and learn some basic cooking skills, you are ready to practice, practice, practice cooking without a recipe. Creating your own recipes at home takes some trial and error. But, with plenty of practice you will find new ways to nourish your body in fun and creative ways that keep your meal plan interesting. I’ve been cooking without recipes for years and years and I’m still learning new cooking techniques and exploring different cultural dishes. The possibilities are endless, so keep going. It’s all about making progress, not perfection.
My Recipe Development Method
I am not a recipe follower… anymore. I will say I used recipes a lot when first learning to cook. When I was a cooking instructor at my previous job, I followed very precise recipes for consistency across classes. As a corporate recipe developer, it continued to pain me measuring every little ingredient and write down every adaptation. I know, I know. That’s what recipe development is.
But, for me, cooking is an art. It’s ever-changing and different for everyone. I look at a recipe as inspiration. It’s a good starting point. And then, I modify what I need to in order to make it satisfying for me. I adjust ingredients to make the dish gluten-free, dairy-free, and free of most animal proteins, use the fresh or frozen produce I have on hand, increase fiber with different mix-ins. I want you to learn to do the same.
Look at my recipes as a starting point. I usually provide several suggestions on how to swap ingredients or modify in a way to fit your food preferences. Feel free to get creative and go rogue. Use whatever ingredients you have on hand. As long as they serve the same purpose in the dish, you should be fine. The kitchen is open to creativity and experimentation. Good luck! 🙂
Are you still struggling in the kitchen? I want to help! Let’s chat in a FREE Discovery Call about what is so challenging for you and look at some solutions. Talk to you soon!